De Niro’s jury turns ‘The Tree of Life’ into a Golden Palm

Kirsten Dunst wins the actress prize for Lars Von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’; Gosling vehicle ‘Drive’ gets best director

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Freshly bearded jury president Robert De Niro talks to the press after the Cannes awards ceremony/photo: Brian D. Johnson

Robert De Niro’s Cannes jury awarded the Palme d’Or to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life this evening, although the notoriously reclusive director was, predictably, not on hand to accept it. “It was a difficult decision,” said De Niro, who said Malick’s picture had “the size, the importance, the tension that seemed to fit the prize.” He made it clear there was some dissension around the verdict, then hastily added it was not a compromise: “Most of us felt the movie was terrific.” The Tree of Life, which stars Brad Pitt as a strict father raising three sons in 1950s America, grafts a coming-of-age nostalgia piece onto a rapturous epic about the creation of the cosmos. It polarized critics in Cannes more severely than almost any other picture (I liked it).

Other films awarded  included The Artist, a silent romantic comedy in black and white, which took best actor for Jean Dujardin’s wordless performance as a silent film star whose career is ruined by talkies; and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which won best actress for Kristen Dunst’s role as depressed bride coming terms with the imminent annihilation of the planet. In accepting her award, Dunst alluded to the controversy that dominated the final days of the festival, saying, “Wow! What a week it’s been.”  She thanked the festival for “allowing our film still to be in competition” after Lars Von Trier was exiled for his inflammatory Nazi comments. De Niro said the decision to ban Von Trier from the festival had no influence on the jury’s decisions, or at least his own views about the film. And he trivialized the festival’s decision to ban Von Trier: “There was some little punishment for the director,” De Niro muttered. “He had to go away or something.”

'Drive' director Nicolas Winding Refn (left) with Ryan Gosling / photo BDJ

Meanwhile, Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn won best director for Drive, starring Canada’s Ryan Gosling. It’s a smart, stylish, ultra-violent action art film. (This is an auteur who cites Texas Chainsaw Massacre as his favorite movie of all time.) Refn thanked Gosling generating the project and commissioning him—a relationship they’ve compared to Lee Marvin getting John Boormann to make Point Blank.  Gosling told the press: “I’ve always wanted to make an action movie or a superhero movie, but I’m happy I did this film.” He added that he and Gosling will team up again next year in a remake of Logan’s Run. “Next time we’ll do a real Hollywood movie. Let’s get into bed with [producer] Joel Silver, because that’s the ultimate bang.” Look out. A new action hero is on the loose, and he’s Canadian.

Belgium's Dardenne brothers, who shared the Grand Jury Prize with Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan / photo BDJ

Two films shared the second place Grand Jury Prize: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, an agonizingly slow drama by Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and The Kid With A Bike, another neo-realist gem by Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, previous Palme d’Or winners.  The third place Jury Prize went to actor-director Maïwenn Le Besco for Poliss, a raucous drama set in a police youth protection unit investigating pedophile crimes. Running to the stage on stilettos, she gave a breathless speech so endless and tearful and over the top it sounded like she was trying to achieve orgasm, rather than accepting bronze. Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar won the screenplay award for Footnote, his ingenious and strangely thrilling tale of rival father-son Talmudic scholars—one of my favorites. Finally, the Camera d’Or, awarded to best feature debut by a separate jury, went to Les Acacias, by Pablo Gioregellli, an entry in the Critics Week sidebar that managed to escape me.

The most universally loved film that somehow failed to get a prize was Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, a quiet masterpiece that I guess was too modest to impress the jury. It’s also noteworthy that This Must Be the Place—featuring a stunt performance by Sean Penn in full make-up as a retired rock star—came up empty-handed. “I thought Sean Penn was terrific in it,” offered De Niro, who seemed to have settled on “terrific” as the consolation adjective, “but we as a group had to decide.” Whenever De Niro spoke, he hummed and hawed, as if incarnating the jury’s indecision, while affecting so many of his classic shrug/grimaces it looked like he was imitating himself.

Jury member Jude Law / photo: BDJ

When pushed at the press conference, Jude Law, one of the jury members, listed a bunch of other films that were favourably discussed, including Sleeping Beauty, Le Havre, Pater and Papus Habemus. “And the Pedro Almodovar film,” piped up fellow jury member Uma Thurman. Which left just seven of the 20 features in competition unawarded or unmentioned.

The ceremony itself didn’t break from tradition. It’s always an awkward amateurish affair, the glaring exception to a festival that is organized with military precision the rest of the week. The highlight was watching De Niro fracture the French language, with phrases like “Nous avons décidé the best we could” and “J’espère que c’est okay.”

Terrence Malick's producer accept Palme d'Or for 'Tree of Life' in his absence / photo: BDJ